Hard times in Hoi An

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 30, 2011

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

After a somewhat stressful day in Dalat, we thankfully made it to the airport and our flight without any further incident. We arrived in Danang as scheduled, and were happy to oblige a couple of Australian girls (Alexis and Kate) who were keen to share a taxi with us to Hoi An.

We arrived at our hostel in Hoi An around 6.45pm, and not a moment too soon. Unbeknown to us the hostel was fully booked, and they had a couple of people sitting in reception already lined up to take our room if we hadn't arrived by 7pm! We were both tired after a long day, so I hate to think what would have happened had we turned up only a few minutes later to find our room gone, and having to find ourselves some new digs for the night.

Hoi An is famous for two things in particular – firstly, its Ancient Town centre, which is recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site, and secondly, for its tailor-made clothing industry. Having been to the post office to find out how much it would cost for us to ship a package home, Monday morning we were on a mission to find ourselves a good tailor. Finding a tailor wasn’t the hard part - they are everywhere in Hoi An. Reportedly there are over 200 tailor shops in town, but judging by what we saw I think that’s an old number - I reckon there’s even more than that. The hard part is choosing among the scores of tailors, all displaying nicely finished garments in their store fronts. Without any sort of recommendation it would be easy to spend hours and hours looking at different tailors, and by the end of it you still wouldn’t have any real way to separate them. Anticipating this problem in advance, Kerry had been onto TripAdvisior – very much her guidebook de jour – and got the names of three relatively well rated tailors, one of which had incidentally been recommended to us by our Easy Rider guides in Dalat.

The first priority was to work out the approximate pricing for having a suit made, as ultimately that was going be an important consideration in which tailor we would use, and how much we could each afford to have made. After visiting all three tailors, and having all of the sales staff running around after us trying to make their sales, we settled on Kimmy’s – it wasn’t the cheapest, nor the most expensive, but it was the one recommended to us by our Easy Riders. Kimmy’s seemed to be a good compromise to the slightly more expensive store we undoubtedly would have chosen had we not been quite as conscious of the cost for what is really an extravagance at the moment.

Having settled on Kimmy’s as our tailor, we began to look at selecting the fabrics for our suits. It didn’t take long before Kerry started to get frustrated with the choices – partly not knowing exactly what she wanted and partly not being able to find exactly what she wanted – so while Kerry got her head together it was my turn to try and find what I was looking for. Kimmy’s didn’t have anywhere near as wide range of fabric choices as either of the other stores we visited, so soon I too was struggling to find what I wanted. Finally though, after modeling a few different fabrics, I found one I liked, and was soon onto step two - searching through a computer database for the style of suit I wanted.

Meanwhile, while I was perusing the computer for my suit style, Kerry had her head together and was just getting started. It didn’t take long before she had a suit, winter jacket, trousers, and dress ordered, and was then working on finding the material for another suit! And while I had intended on stopping at a suit, I was soon convinced that I too needed a winter jacket as well. Two-plus hours, and several hundred dollars later, we were both kitted out with new wardrobes of work attire. There’s only one thing missing from this little equation now…. and that’s jobs!

Having sorted out our suits – and other miscellaneous pieces of clothing – our other pressing concern for the day was that we were now getting increasingly low on dong. I was very conscious of, and starting to get a bit nervous, about the money situation, and despite having tried nearly every ATM in town I’d still had no luck getting any cash. With there being no international bank ATM’s in Hoi An you’re at the mercy of the various Vietnamese banks, and their combination of ATM surcharges and VND$2m withdrawal limits really wasn’t proving helpful in alleviating our cash crunch.

After lunch, we purchased tickets to enter some of the Hoi An Ancient Town tourist sites, and went to buy our bus tickets to Hue. But it turned out we were short of cash to pay for the bus tickets – a little embarrassing! Kerry kindly offered to withdraw some extra money to get us by – hopefully it would be enough to get us to Hanoi at the end of the week, where I should be able to get more cash without too much of a problem. After finding an ATM to get some cash, and returning to purchase our bus tickets, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets and taking photos of this beautiful historic little town.

Having only ordered our clothes earlier in the day, we had to return to the tailor on Monday evening for our first fitting. In a matter of only six hours the basic structure of our clothes had been made to our measurements. Our clothes were beginning to take shape, and already they looked good. With a few alterations and a couple more fittings they were going to look great.

Tuesday, we weren’t required back at the tailor for our second fitting until 6pm. It was another hot, bright sunny day, so with the full day to ourselves we decided to get a couple of bicycles and check out the area around Hoi An. We criss-crossed the back streets of the An Hoi Peninsula, opposite the Ancient Town, on our bicycles, before heading further along the river to Cam Nam Island. While the peninsula area was interesting – cycling past the homes of local residents – there wasn’t really a great deal to see on Cam Nam Island.

After exploring the peninsula and Cam Nam Island we headed 5km out of town to Cua Dai Beach. We arrived to find a beautiful wide palm-fringed beach – absolutely gorgeous! It was a great place to relax for a few hours and something that we both sorely needed after the 'in your face’ nature of the past couple of weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. Finally a chance for us both to just lie down, relax and unwind a little – at least for a couple of hours. Warm breeze, warm sun, tall shady palm trees, and warm inviting water – perfect. At least it was perfect until around 2.30pm when the locals insisted on ruining our peace and quiet to try and get us to move so that they could set up their beach kitchens right where we were lying. Unbelievable!

After this had continued for more than half an hour, and we had had our afternoon well and truly disturbed, we decided to cut our losses and pack up and head back into town. It wasn’t worth us staying any longer with the locals intent on ruining it for us. They even had the nerve to ask if we wanted anything to eat – no, we didn’t!!

We had a couple of hours back at the hostel to relax before we had our second fitting at 6pm. Our clothes seemed to be coming along nicely, and only a few minor alternations were still required. After our fitting, we had arranged to meet up with the German couple that had been with us on our tour in the Mekong Delta, for dinner and drinks.

Wednesday morning we headed back to the tailor for one final fitting to make sure that we were happy with our clothes, and to organise the shipping back to the UK. While we were happy with the clothes themselves, we certainly weren’t as happy with the customer service we received. Despite having spent hundreds of dollars, they still insisted on charging us what amounted to a US$1.50 credit card service fee on the shipping. It wasn’t the amount that was annoying, it was the principal of the matter. Surely you would think that they want their customers to leave the store feeling happy and content. Well we didn’t, and we weren’t! Why would they not waive a $1.50 charge to keep their customers happy? Unfortunately there’s nothing more we can do other than taking our business somewhere else next time – which I now think we will.

Having sorted out our clothes, and with the rest of the morning free until our bus left for Hue, we finished wandering the Ancient Town. We visited three ‘ancient’ houses, which were built by Chinese immigrants that settled in Hoi An over 200 years ago - the Duc An House, Quan Thang House and the Old House of Tan Ky - and also strolled through the lively and colourful town market. The ancient houses were full of dark wood paneling and furnishings, beautiful inlaid mother of pearl panels, and without any external windows, were all designed around internal courtyards to bring natural light into the houses. They were quite interesting to see, especially as some of the houses have been home to over eight generations of the same family, and continue to be lived in by those immigrant family’s descendants today. Finally, as we headed back to the hostel we stopped to take a closer look at the town’s iconic Japanese Covered Bridge, having already passed through a number of times during the previous couple of days.

Hoi An is a beautiful town that’s sadly a bit overrun with tourists, tailors, souvenir shops and art galleries – it’s so bad that it’s even difficult to find a bank or internet café in Hoi An, normally two things that are very easy to find in most tourist towns. Its pedestrian streets are fantastic to wander in the late morning/early afternoon, and in the evenings, when they’re almost deserted. The streets are very peaceful, and even now you can still occasionally see scenes that must surely harken back to the old days. There is also an excellent - and lively - market, seemingly full of the freshest ingredients every day. It was different to the sights, sounds and smells of a lot of markets you can go into in lesser developed countries, with flies and mosquitoes hovering everywhere – this market looked pristine and fresh, and didn’t smell anywhere near as pungent as others we’ve been in.

Hoi An is a real treat and definitely somewhere that I would like to come back to, and spend longer next time.

Our next stop is the former imperial capital, Hue.

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